Church membership is more than simply having your name on a roll. It should mean something. Sadly, this idea of meaningful membership is lost in many churches today—some desire to have large membership rolls to point to their fruitfulness or effectiveness. The front door is massive, and sadly, when it is, the back door is just as significant. The church becomes one large revolving door when covenantal membership is seemingly unimportant. But is that the way the Scriptures display membership? I don’t believe so. Below I outline four truths concerning church membership.
Regenerate Church Membership
Can anyone be a member of a church? In a way, yes. But in another real sense, no. Church members should be Christians. Regenerate church membership is the Biblical picture. The book of Acts is a beautiful picture of God’s redemptive story unfolding in the world. At Pentecost, Peter gloriously proclaims the gospel. After his sermon, we read, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41).” A straightforward reading of the text shows that “souls” were added after believing in the gospel, not before.
In 1 Peter, Peter again lays out the nature of the church. He says,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (2:9-10).
The text displays the reality that these people are a body of believers who God’s grace has saved. In the letters of Paul, he often refers to the churches as “saints.” God had chosen these individuals to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Throughout the Scriptures, we see that “the call to salvation is a call to church membership,” says John Hammett. The local church is a display of God’s family. Paul says, “For in one Spirit we are all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13).” Being baptized in the Spirit is synonymous with being baptized into one body.
The church is to be reflective of God and, therefore, should consist of believers in Christ. Non-believers can attend our services, but they should not be on our membership rolls. The nature of the church is pure and holy.
The Need for Membership
Why should Christians be a part of a local body of believers? One answer is because we all have “blind spots.” We cannot live the Christian life faithfully in isolation. We need one another. In the book of Hebrews, the writer says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God (Heb. 3:12).”
How do we watch out for an evil, unbelieving heart? The writer adds, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (v.13).” Sin is deceitful. We all have blind spots, much like a car. There are sins in our lives that may be unnoticed. We need to encourage and point out these blind spots so that our hearts will not be hardened and deceived.
Further, in one sense, the church functions like an outpost or embassy of the kingdom of God. We know from Scripture that this world is not our home, and as Christians, our citizenship is in Heaven (Phil. 3:20; 1 Pet. 2:11). Therefore, Christ has given the keys of the kingdom to the church. As Jonathan Leeman says that Christ has given a delegated authority “to assess a person’s gospel words and deeds and to render a judgment.” We may think of the passages in Scripture concerning church discipline (Matt. 18:18; 1 Cor. 5) and the explicit text that mentions the keys of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 16:13-20).
In bringing in members, we are pronouncing a judgment that these individuals belong to the kingdom of Heaven. They are redeemed (see regenerate church membership above). Again, Leeman is helpful. He says, “Membership is the church’s declaration that an individual is “an official, licensed, card-carrying, bona fide Jesus representative.” Membership is more than having your name on a roll; it ought to mean something, namely, that you are a follower of Christ.
Non-believers can attend our services, but they should not be on our membership rolls.
Therefore, churches ought to be diligent in watching their front door. At my church, we go through a process with prospective members before admitting them into the body. The pastors do their due diligence in discerning whether the seeking person is a Christian or not. Now, deception is possible. People can say the right things and demonstrate good fruit. However, that is the helpfulness of church discipline. If it becomes evident that a person is not a believer by all appearances, we have a process by which we remove them from membership, because again, the church consists of Christian believers.
This point makes it imperative that the church take a good look at its membership roll. Are there absent individuals? Why? Where are they? As Charles Spurgeon once said, “but when you do not know where the individuals are, nor what they are, how can you count them?” As a pastor, I will one day stand before God and give an account for those charged to my oversight. I’d like to know who I am to shepherd. It’s hard to do so when I don’t know these individuals or have never seen them.
The church is essential in the life of the believer. It is a means of grace, appointed by the Lord to nourish our souls and our growth in grace. Membership in the local church is meaningful
The Command for Membership
Is church membership Biblical? Some churches don’t believe it is, and it’s evident in the reality that they don’t have “members.” However, I believe church membership is quite biblical, and there is a reason for it in the Scriptures. Paul calls for the body to remove the guilty person from the Corinthian church. He says, “for what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you (1 Cor. 5:12-13).” Clearly, there is an outside and an inside to the church. How can someone be excluded if there was never an inclusion?
The book of Hebrews contains another case for church membership. The writer says, “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account (Heb. 13:17).” Are Christians to obey every Christian leader? No, they’re not. They are to follow and submit to their leaders. Are pastors going to give an account for all Christians throughout the world? No, they’re not. They provide an account for those whose souls they are watching over.
These passages of Scripture seem to articulate the command for church membership clearly.
The Goal of Membership
One of the primary goals of church membership is the growing in Christlike maturity. Paul says,
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up the body of Christ, until we attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13, emphasis added).
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we see that believers are to use their spiritual gifts for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Paul illustrates the relationship of Christ and His church through marriage (Eph. 5), which demonstrates the covenantal nature of membership. The covenantal nature of membership displays a commitment between one another.
The church is essential in the life of the believer. It is a means of grace, appointed by the Lord to nourish our souls and our growth in grace. Membership in the local church is meaningful.
Soli Deo Gloria,